A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Juan Cole on France and "Sharpening Contradictions"

Of all the vast corpus of commentary generated in response to yesterday's jihadist killings in Paris, I think one of the more enlightening perspectives has been Juan Cole's "Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked Satirists in Paris," which I think captures an element frequently overlooked in assessing jihadist groups' tactics and motivations. Citing the Marxist approach of provocations aimed at "sharpening the contradictions" between labor and capital in order to radicalize uncommitted workers, he argues that:
The operatives who carried out this attack exhibit signs of professional training. They spoke unaccented French, and so certainly know that they are playing into the hands of Marine LePen and the Islamophobic French Right wing. They may have been French, but they appear to have been battle hardened. This horrific murder was not a pious protest against the defamation of a religious icon. It was an attempt to provoke European society into pogroms against French Muslims, at which point al-Qaeda recruitment would suddenly exhibit some successes instead of faltering in the face of lively Beur youth culture (French Arabs playfully call themselves by this anagram term deriving from wordplay involving scrambling of letters). Ironically, there are reports that one of the two policemen they killed was a Muslim.
 He also notes how the former Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq, predecessor of ISIS, purposefully provoked Shi‘ite retaliation against Sunnis there, in order to solidify and radicalize tthe Sunni community.

While it is still unclear if the perpetrators' main allegiance is to Al-Qa‘ida (one is said to have trained in Yemen) or the Islamic State, the tactics are similar in either case: to provoke a polarization in French society by creating a backlash  against the Muslim community generally, "sharpening contradictions" in a large Muslim community whose youth are overwhelmingly secular at the moment.

I think this insight is valuable. This is not about cartoons, but about creating a polarization in French society that may work to radicalize the Arab community in France.

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